Restrictions on outdoor sports for children during Covid pandemic 'lawful and proportionate'
Restrictions imposed on outdoor sports for children in Northern Ireland during the pandemic were lawful and proportionate, the High Court has ruled.
A judge held that the prohibition introduced by the Stormont Executive as part of efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19 had a legitimate aim of protecting public health.
Mr Justice Rooney said: “The restrictions were necessary due to the developing course of the pandemic at that time.”
Between November 2020 and April 2021, children were banned from participation in organised sporting activities outside as the government reinforced its stay at home message.
Lawyers for an eight-year-old boy from Magherafelt, Co Derry who challenged the restrictions claimed they could harm young people’s physical and mental welfare for years to come.
The court heard he is an enthusiastic footballer affiliated to a local youth club who was denied the benefits of training, playing matches and social interaction with his friends.
In a case taken against the Department of Health, the schoolboy's legal team alleged a breach of human rights.
The ban was discriminatory, with adults allowed to continue elite sports, according to their case.
It was contended that there is no evidence to show the risk of transmitting Covid increased by children playing sport outside.
Instead, the restrictions were said to have contributed to a crisis in young people's well-being.
Counsel for the boy read a series of testimonies from other children about the personal impact on them.
One 11-year-old described his unhappiness at being prevented from playing golf, and feeling like he was treated differently from professionals.
A girl aged seven told of her sadness at not getting to play Gaelic games.
Another 12-year-old girl recounted how much she missed football, her "escape from stress".
With the situation worsened by the closure of schools during the pandemic, the court heard children had been denied the “release valve” of outdoor sports.
A further ground of challenge involved claims that Northern Ireland's Commissioner for Children and Young People was not included in the decision-making process.
Counsel representing the department argued that the restrictions formed part of an overall package of measures designed to prevent unsustainable pressures on the health and social care system, an increase in viral transmission, illness and loss of life.
Such actions involved matters of contingency planning and management raising operational and policy issues which should not be for judicial determination.
Rejecting the application for judicial review, Mr Justice Rooney ruled that an interference with the boy’s Article 8 rights to private and family life through the restrictions was justified.
“They were in accordance with the law, pursued a legitimate aim, namely the protection of public health and were proportionate in all the circumstances,” he confirmed.
According to the judge, the sporting ban was among a range of actions taken with the primary objective of reducing the number of people infected with the virus.
It followed a careful weighing up of the evidence which identified the risks against a return to sport, a consideration of activities with appropriate mitigations and an analysis of the attitude taken in the rest of the UK.
“The final decision, therefore, reflected the advice of Sport NI and was endorsed by the Department of Health consistent with expert input from the chief medical officer, chief scientific adviser and approved by the Executive,” he said.
Referring to the alleged discrimination, he added: “It is my view that the interferences (were) proportionate and justified.”